By Bill H. Reeves
Is Romans a Difficult Book?
Does 2 Peter 3:16 so indicate? There is milk and there is solid food (Heb. 5:11-6:3), so obviously there are some truths that are basic and fundamental, and others which require maturity of growth on the part of a Christian in order to rightly understand them. Things are hard of interpretation for the one whose hearing has become dulled (v. 11).
A Christian can and must understand the Scriptures (Eph. 3:4, 14-19; 5:17). Good hearts understand (Matt. 13:23), because God gives them understanding (13:11), the reason for this being stated in the next verse. But those with hearts waxed gross, ears dull of hearing, and closed eyes, do not understand (13:14, 15).
Peter’s point is what happens to those who do not study and are not stable and that therefore twist these and other Scriptures.
When the Romans first heard the letter from Paul read to them, it was not difficult for them! You see, they knew the conditions of the times in the brotherhood, and so they knew the purpose and theme of the letter. It was written in their language, so no translation (version) was involved. There was no Catholicism, Protestantism, Calvinism, Baptist doctrine, “faith only doctrine,” nor “new unity brethren,” to make things difficult. They did not hear this letter read to them, having first been confused with sectarian perversions of Paul’s letter. So, Romans wasn’t difficult for them! It need not be for us either.
Unlearned (in the truth, see 1 Cor. 2) and unstable men have through the centuries tried to make Romans fit their theologies, and now people come to the inspired letter with their minds somewhat conditioned by error, and they therefore find Romans difficult to understand, whereas the Roman brethren easily understood it.
Romans 4:1-8 is only a part of the letter, and must be studied in the light of the context. The key words (since sectarians have made them so by misusing them!) are “faith” and “works.” How does Paul use them? That is the issue! Note what he had just said in what we call, 3:28. There he contrasts “faith” (the gospel of the New Testament) and “works” (of the law of Moses, of the Old Testament). The word “faith” is used comprehensively of all that the believer does in compliance with God’s commands, and the word “works” are those of the Law of Moses, which if kept in perfect obedience, caused the Jew to live.
Paul is not contrasting “faith” with “obedience to the gospel” (1 Pet. 1:22), and he is not using the term “works” in the sense of “obedience to the gospel.” He is contrasting justification by the gospel with justification which the Jew sought by being identified (principally by circumcision and fleshly descent from Abraham) with the Law of Moses (“works of the law”). Keeping this in mind, Romans isn’t difficult!
In the time of the Protestant Reformation, since the re-formers were objecting to and combating the meritorious works which the Catholic clergy over time had imposed upon the people, and having read in Romans and in other passages that salvation is by faith and not by works, they applied such passages to the problem which they were facing. In so doing they misapplied the apostle Paul’s use of the terms “faith” and “works.” They concluded that there is nothing to do to be saved except to believe (faith only). (Of course the pure Calvinist insisted that even faith is a gift and is given only to the unconditionally predestined!) So we can easily see why baptism, something obviously which a person must do, has been so vehemently opposed as being necessary to salvation. They reason: It is a “work” (something to do), and therefore can be no part of man’s being saved! But in all this reasoning they are using the word “works” in a different con-text than the apostle Paul did.
Let Us Look At The Passage Verse By Verse
4:1 Since the Judaizers (Jewish Christians who demanded that the Gentiles be circumcised in order to be saved, Acts 15:1, 2) were making so much of the flesh, Paul re-minds them of the case of Abraham, their national father in the flesh. God justified him when he was of no particular fleshly identity and law, and before he was circumcised.
4:2 Abraham was not justified by perfect law keeping in reference to some particular law, so he wasn’t justified by works (law keeping), and therefore in his justification he had no reason for boasting. No other than the father of the Jewish nation represented a denial of the very claim of the Judaizers.
4:3 Genesis 15:6 cited by Paul as scriptural proof of Abraham’s being justified by faith and not by perfect law keeping, and this was before Abraham was circumcised (chap. 17)! God imputed or reckoned Abraham’s faith unto righteousness. He forgave Abraham because Abraham believed God. Being forgiven, he was then righteous (without sin).
4:4 Keeping in mind Paul’s use of “faith” (in the gospel of Christ) and “works” of the law (as pressed by the Judaizers), 3:28, it is easy to see that in this verse Paul is simply stating the fact that perfection in obedience to law makes the ensuing reward a matter of debt. God would owe such a one salvation. He would not be an object of God’s grace.
4:5 On the other hand, the one who does not work (keep the law perfectly) but who believes the saving gospel of Christ will have his faith reckoned unto righteousness. God will save him by his grace. The Protestant reformers, and sectarians today, take Paul out of his context and apply his words to acts of obedience in doing what God says in order for him to forgive us. No wonder Romans is “difficult” for many people! But the Romans to whom Paul wrote had no such problem in understanding the message.
4:6 Paul illustrates his case with the words of David: Happy is the man to whom God reckons righteousness by forgiving him on the basis of Christ’s death on the cross, and this apart from law-keeping (“works”) as a circumcised Jew.
4:7 Paul shows plainly that he is talking about forgiveness of sins, when he speaks of one’s faith being imputed unto righteousness, by quoting these words of David.
4:8 This happy, or blessed, man is such because God forgave him his sins, conditioned upon the man’s faith in Christ. Since God forgave him, the sins that before were put to the man’s account when he committed them are now not imputed to him any longer. This is the one to whom the Lord does not impute sins: to the one forgiven of his sins!
Think of the numerous times in Acts when in the cases of conversion people asked what to do to be saved, and were told what to do. Faith is something to do (Acts 16:30, 31). Repentance is something to do (2:37, 38). Confession of faith in Christ is something to do (8:37; Rom. 10:9, 10). Baptism is something to do (2:37, 38; 22:16). But of all such “doings” (or “works”) Paul is not speaking in Romans 4:1-8 when he speaks of “works”!
That “faith” is used by Paul in Romans 4:1-8 comprehensively is clearly seen in 6:7, 8, where he speaks of the Romans having obeyed from the heart (obedient faith) in order to be made free from sin and to become servants of righteousness. Of course salvation is conditional; even believing is something to do (John 6:28, 29). Such is not Paul’s point in Romans 4:1-8. His point there is to affirm that any man can be saved by faith in the gospel of Christ, and that no man can be saved by works of law, such as claimed by the Judaizers.
Keep in mind that Paul was directing himself in this passage to the Judaizer, and not to the unbelieving Jews. Keep in mind that he was not talking exclusively about the conversion of alien sinners. (Abraham was not an alien sinner in Gen. 15:6, but a worshiper of God.) God reckons any man’s faith unto righteousness; that is, he forgives him (saint or sinner) conditioned upon the man’s faith in the gospel of Christ.
There is nothing in this passage which is difficult within itself, but the denominationalist has made it “difficult.” If he will use the terms in the passage as Paul used them in the book of Romans, he will no longer find it difficult, but will understand the matter just as the Roman brethren did when the book was first read to them.
Guardian of Truth XL: 4 p. 3-4
February 15, 1996